The Woman in the Well




In mid-February of 1937, 16-year old high school student Helen Moyer did not return home after school. Her father Absalom Moyer, waited a little bit and then called policed immediately after her books, hat, shoes and some smashed headlight glass was found along the highway where she walked to and from school.

At first police believed that she had been struck by a hit-and-run driver but didn’t rule out a more purposeful attack. They printed her pretty portrait in the newspaper in hopes of finding more information.



That day a milkman in his truck had passed Clyde Evercombe, a peddler driving his horse-drawn wagon. He had noticed the milkman twice, seen him turning around where Helen’s belongings had been found and noticed the damage to the truck’s fender and headlights. When Clyde pointed out the damage to him, the milkman became nervous then angry. When it was learned that the milkman, Alexander Meyer, had been missing from home the same time as Helen disappeared, he was arrested while delivering milk on his work route.



A Suspect Emerges

Police zeroed in on the 20-year old milkman and troubled youth Alexander Meyer, sweating him for a confession.

This wasn’t Alexander’s first brush with the law. Three years earlier he had shot two Philadelphia girls with a hunting rifle for refusing his sexual advances. After shooting them he had attempted to assault them. Both girls survived the ordeal. Alexander was sentenced to a term in Huntingdon Reformatory, a juvenile reformatory, before being paroled 14 months before Helen’s disappearance. No one was exactly sure how his parole was secured.



Behind the scenes, his release likely had to do with his family connections. His wealthy father, O. Jackson Meyer, was a Philadelphia coal broker who did not know how to handle his wayward son, or see how serious his actions could become. He believed that his son was not actually dangerous. He just needed some protection and guidance.

Alexander had been a troubled student and truant during his school days. His father had moved him from school to school only to have Alexander’s problems force him to leave. He took two years to finish the 6th grade, two to pass 7th grade and when he failed to pass 8th grade Alexander finally dropped out of school altogether.



Helen is Found

Alexander admitted to killing Helen right after his arrest but claimed it was a hit-and-run. He had only been trying to hide his mistake by throwing her into the well.

But he submitted a ten page written confession a few days later after Jennie Watterson, a high school girl the same age as Helen, identified Alexander as the man who had attempted to attack and rape her a week before Helen’s disappearance.



In his confession Alexander admitted to intentionally running Helen down in his milk truck. He added in details like he was driving at 45 mph (72 kmh) when he hit her, that he drove 10 miles (16 km) with her body to an abandoned farm next to his father’s, how he disposed of her clothes, raped her and then threw her in the well. He had been planning an attack for some time, he said. That day he was looking for any girl. In his confession he wrote:

“I’d been thinking for weeks about how I could get a girl. I knew that a lot of them walked home from the Coatesville High School, so I drove around when school was out looking for one that was alone.”

He had returned to the well the next day and thrown dynamite sticks down it, worried that his secret would be discovered. He had taken the dynamite from his father’s farm, which was next to the abandoned property. But the blast only shattered Helen’s legs instead of destroying her body and the evidence.



A little over a week after Helen’s disappearance, Alexander agreed to lead police to her body in the well. They removed 1,000 pounds of stone on top of her. She had a fractured skull, a deep gash on her head, a broken nose, dislocated jaw, broken right leg and a mutilated left leg.

The day after finding her body, police returned to the well to comb for more evidence. This time they found dynamite stumps, part of her red pullover sweater and flowered dress and the remainder of a limb and her left foot.

The coroner report read: “death was caused by a ruptured liver and shock from drowning.” The coroner also noted that Helen had been probably raped, though he couldn’t be conclusive, and that she was alive when she was still alive when she’d been thrown into the well; a pint of water had been found in each of her lungs.



The Case Goes to Trial

Alexander’s family hired a prominent lawyer, J. Paul McElree, and the town expected the boy to get off for his crimes. The newspapers wondered if the trial would be a whitewash.

McElree relied on the insanity defense in hopes of avoiding the death penalty for his client, asserting that though Alexander was legally sane (by definition: he could tell right from wrong) he was mentally retarded and should only receive life imprisonment.

But Dr. William Drayton, who examined Alexander for mental competence after he shot the two girls from Philadelphia, testified that Alexander would commit the same crime again if he went free: “The condition is inborn. There is no chance of changing it.”



Alexander Meyer was found guilty later that month in February of 1937. He showed little emotion during his sentencing only wondering aloud to reporters if jail time would interfere with wearing the 15 new suits in his wardrobe.

Exactly a year after Helen’s death, while Alexander still languished in prison awaiting his penalty, Sarah Thompson, a 31-year old woman was killed by a hit-and-run motorist a few yards from where Helen was run down. Before dying she told police that the car had passed her three times and had undoubtedly seen her. Her death was ruled an accident but the driver was never found. It was a curious coincidence and spooked everyone in town.


On July 12, 1938 at 12:31 a.m. Alexander Meyer was led to the electric chair at Rockview Penitentiary. He recited Psalm 23 with the prison chaplain as he sat in the chair. When they reached “Amen” the switch was pulled that sent 20,000 volts of electricity through his body. He was pronounced dead four minutes later.

His heartbroken father died exactly a year later.

Alexander, the well and Helen's portrait

Source: Associated Press photos

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

*The photos in this post are of the general area in Chester County and not of the actual site of the crime.